Conversation piece

Conversation pieces are small-scale group portraits mainly painted in Britain in the eighteenth century, beginning in the 1720s. They are disinguished by their portrayal of the group apparently engaged in genteel conversation.

There are many varieties of conversation piece. People may be portrayed sharing common activities such as hunts, meals, or musical parties. Dogs and/or horses are also frequently featured. Arthur Devis was a painter famous for his conversation pieces. William Hogarth also worked in the genre, and parodied it in his print A Midnight Modern Conversation, which depicted a group of men whose conversation has degenerated into drunken incoherence.

The phrase "conversation piece" later accquired a different meaning. It came to refer to objects that were perceived to be interesting enough to spark conversation about them. They provide a stimulus for prop-based conversation openers. The original conversation pieces sometimes depicted a group united in conversation about an object, which would typically be an item linked to science or scholarship.


  • Mario Praz, Conversation Pieces: A Survey of the Informal Group Portrait in Europe and America (University Park and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999)

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